SEBRING — When Denise Grimsley first got into politics, it was mainly because she had seen a lack of leadership with her Florida Legislature and state agencies.
She was prepared this year to leave Tallahassee after serving in the Florida House of Representatives and the Florida Senate — she even sold her house there — until she started looking for a candidate to back for Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
She told The Highlands tea party last week she couldn’t find one she liked.
She decided to run instead.
It wasn’t the first time she found a deficiency and ran for office to change it.
Raised in Wauchula, she belongs to a Florida cattle and citrus family going back many generations. When she can, she still tends the herd and the groves, she said.
She’s now the administrator of Florida Hospital Wauchula, but has spent most of her career as a registered nurse. She started at Walker Memorial Hospital and worked 17 years as a trauma nurse, which she called the best training for politics.
“(It) teaches you to keep your eye on the ball, and you ignore all the noise that goes on to the right and to the left of you,” Grimsley said, “and you just kind of stay focused to do whatever the task is at hand.”
When her father became ill, she returned home to run Grimsley Oil for 10 years: Her family’s gasoline and propane business included 10 convenience stores.
One cold January Friday, a water heater went out in a store in Arcadia. They were in the process of installing it when the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services — which regulates gas stations — showed up for an inspection.
They asked the representative to wait until they finished so he could inspect the heater, but he was in a hurry to return to Sebring by 5 p.m. and wouldn’t wait.
They couldn’t serve coffee that weekend — a staple at convenience stores — until his return. A call to a superior in Tallahassee got nowhere, she said.
“So I decided right then I’m going to get involved somehow in politics, and I’m going to find people (and) elect people who are business friendly, rural friendly to our way of life and that have some common sense,” Grimsley said.
She joined the Hardee Republican Executive Committee, went on to become state committee woman, looking for candidates to back.
At the start of August 2004, they sold their stores — 13 days before Hurricane Charley hit. Grimsley also ran for the Florida House of Representatives, where she served a full four terms.
As a legislator, she went out to remote areas of her district, holding “mobile office” hours, and took part in local meetings to remind people that she was there to help them navigate state government.
A couple of years ago, she decided she’d done what she needed to, and sold her Tallahassee home in preparation to leave.
Then she and other Republicans talked over lunch about the fact that the candidate they wanted to back for agriculture commissioner had decided not to run. She started looking for one with a hand’s-on background in agriculture, executive experience to run an agency with 3,800 employees and a $1.7 billion budget and a background in finance, both in private business and government financial systems.
She didn’t find that candidate, so she decided to run herself.
The agency oversees agriculture, but also is the chief consumer advocate. It oversees gas stations, pawn shops, security guards, mappers/surveyors, amusement park rides and the county and state fairs.
She remembers one time meeting with a state official, the man wouldn’t turn from his computer and said “Uh-huh” to her every statement. She didn’t like talking to his back and knowing she wasn’t being heard.
Instead, she said, state officials should have a culture of service, showing respect, calling people by name, making the process of government easy and also keeping people from getting stuck on a phone tree or web site when trying to make direct contact with an agency.
“Those are the things that I think you care about, and if it’s not easy for some reason, you want one of those 3,800 employees to hold your hand,” she said.
Grimsley is a member of the Peace River Valley and Highlands County Citrus Grower’s Associations, the Florida Cattlemen’s Association and the Florida Farm Bureau. She holds degrees from Polk Community College and Warner Southern College, and a master’s in business administration from the University of Miami.
Denise Grimsley, left, speaks to a crowd of 30-40 at Tuesday’s meeting of The Highlands Tea Party. Grimsley said before the meeting she didn’t expect to take Wednesday -- July 4 -- off because of a tight campaign schedule. She is currently running for Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services.